North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell | 1854 – 1855 (Penguin Classics edition 1995) | Penguin Books | Paperback $12.00
When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction.
Well, I finally finished the 1st pick from my list of 50 classic books to read in 5 years or less. It’s only been… what… like 3 months?
In my defense, I tend to read more than 1 book at a time. And also, right now, I’m dealing with some assigned reading for a committee. And also, y’know, life happens. Anyway: time for a review!
First, I have to confess that I’ve had this book for a couple of years. And I even started reading it at one point but then just didn’t finish it for whatever reason. Well, no, maybe not for just “whatever” reason. But more on that in a sec.
This book was a gift from my best friend (who graduated from med school this weekend, w00t!!!) and it is apparently one of her favs. And I already knew the basic outline of the story (spoiler alerts don’t apply to 160-year-old books after all) and it seemed like the sort of thing I’d like.
TBH, getting through this novel was such a chore.
And you know what? That’s all on me. I’ve been reading mostly quick’n’easy YA and plot-driven SF/F for the past couple of years, with a smattering of nonfiction on various topics thrown in for spice. A mid-19th century social novel wasn’t just a change of pace — it was like telling someone who’s normally into slow, indoor yoga that she has to now run a marathon in a thunderstorm. My brain just could not handle it at first, and the whole thing felt way too forced and unpleasant.
And that sucks because I watched the BBC miniseries on Netflix and I seriously LOVED it. I watched it twice in a row (in the meantime ignoring my reading “homework” like the terrible, terrible person I am). The actual storyline: awesome. Period drama with a serious sense of self-awareness: awesome. Characters: awesome. So… why did I have so much trouble liking the actual book?
I carried it around in my bag for months. I tackled it during my lunch hours. I underlined meaningful passages. I dutifully read all the editor’s notes (the Penguin Classics edition incl. an intro and notes by Patricia Ingham) for historical context. I even (gasp!) read a bunch of reviews and discussions and articles and stuff about it. I Tried with a capital T, I really did.
I think the main reason I didn’t like it (besides the difficult gear-shifting at the start) was that I don’t like feeling preached at. It’s probably the same reason that I love the movie versions of Little Women and Heidi and A Christmas Carol and so on, but I’ve never been particularly fond of the books: watching the plot play out with a focus on the characters and their interactions with each other (and the scenery, and the costumes, and the language) is so much more appealing than being bludgeoned over the head with a moral every other page.
That’s not to say that I don’t want my stories to have a moral, or to deal with ethical issues or complicated social structures or anything like that. I guess I just prefer to feel that I’ve figured out the author’s intention on my own, as opposed to the aforementioned morality bludgeoning.
You have to come at me sideways with your opinions on morality, is what I’m saying. What that says about me, I don’t know.
Well, anyway, so much for my 1st foray into this whole Classics Club thing. I’m glad I made an effort to find plenty of SF/F and YA and nonfiction classics for my list. I’m going to need them if most of the normal “canon” titles are all this awful for me.
- The Gaskell Society, celebrating the life and works of Elizabeth Gaskell
- Archived page for the BBC miniseries
Publication information: Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.